Judge puts an end to 20-year-old Cleary prison case

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An Anchorage judge issued an order Friday halting direct court oversight of the state's prisons, putting an end to a 20-year-old case.

Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews said the state Department of Corrections has met conditions spelled out in the consent decree that settled the Cleary class action lawsuit. That 1981 lawsuit, named for the first plaintiff listed, accused the state of violating prisoners' rights under the Alaska Constitution.

''This will let all the talented men and women in the Corrections Department focus on today's issues rather than on yesterday's problems,'' said Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh.

In a hearing Friday, Andrews said the state had addressed problems raised by the Cleary case. The decree prohibited prison overcrowding and set minimum standards for such things as prison libraries, grievance procedures and when inmates should get clean laundry and exercise.

Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Cooper said the ruling means prisoners must file grievances in court rather than going through Cleary attorneys.

''They can't just allege they didn't get clean sheets, but must show why it's a violation of state or federal law,'' Cooper said.

Andrews released the Cleary lawyers from most duties, but they will continue to represent plaintiffs on a single remaining issue. Andrews said she is considering the constitutionality of a law passed two years ago by the Legislature that allowed the Department of Corrections to seek dismissal of the decree if there were no ongoing violations.

Scott Taylor, an attorney for the Cleary plaintiffs, conceded that the state has met conditions set by the 1990 decree. But the settlement agreement contemplated progress would be made within a year, Taylor said.

''It's taken the state 10 years to reach a point it was expected to reach in 1991,'' he said.

Andrews also dismissed court-appointed monitor John Hagar, a California attorney.

Hagar had asked to be relieved of the position, according to Allen Cooper, director of institutions. Cooper said Hagar was convinced he was no longer needed after making recent visits to several prisons in Alaska as well as a private prison in Arizona that houses 766 Alaska prisoners to help relieve overcrowding in state prisons. Alaska prisons have a total capacity of 2,786.

''This is a very positive thing for the state,'' Cooper said of the decision. ''We're thankful the judge recognized we're on par with the rest of the nation.''

Now the Department of Corrections is seeking national accreditation for its 13 prisons. Margot Knuth, in charge of the project, said the state has applied to the American Corrections Association for accreditation of six prisons, and plans to apply for the remaining facilities next year. Accreditation would affirm that standards are high.

In July, three auditors will tour the Fairbanks prison, the first of the six that have applied. Knuth said the state hopes to have all Alaska prisons accredited within two years. Facilities must meet 39 mandatory standards and 90 percent of more than 400 non-mandatory standards to qualify.

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